There has been some concern that the Trade Bill does not offer sufficient protections in some areas especially the NHS, food standards and environmental targets. However I believe that these are already have rigorous protections in place, which I explain below.
The Trade Bill is a continuity Bill, and it cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the US. Rather, the Trade Bill is designed to enable the free trade agreements that the EU had signed with third countries before the UK exited to be transitioned. These had all been subjected to parliamentary scrutiny. Ministers have no intention of lowering standards in transitioned trade agreements, as the very purpose of these agreements is to replicate as close as is possible the effects of existing commitments in EU agreements. None of the 20 continuity agreements signed have resulted in standards being lowered.
Rigorous checks and balances on the Government’s power to negotiate and ratify new agreements already exist, including through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act allows Parliament to scrutinise the agreements for 21 sitting days, provides for a report on the agreement from the relevant Select Committee as well as the option for debates on the agreements and the power for the Commons to restart this 21 day period if it is not satisfied).
In terms of future trade agreements, public consultations have and will continue to be held prior to negotiations to inform the Government's approach and any final agreement will be scrutinised and ratified by Parliament. These measures will ensure that both Parliament and the public can have their say on the content of any potential new trade agreements.
The Government has made a clear and absolute commitment that the NHS is not be on the table. The Government has also been abundantly clear that it has no intention of lowering standards. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table, and nor will the services the NHS provides.
All food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements. The EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book. These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcasses. Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before Parliament.
I received a letter from the Secretaries of State for International Trade and for DEFRA that said:
Any trade deal the UK strikes must be fair and reciprocal to our farmers, and must not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. We have been clear on these points and will continue to fight for the interests of our farming industry in all trade agreements we negotiate.
The UK remains committed to the delivery of Sustainable Development Goals too and future free trade agreements will not undermine the UK’s ability to continue to meet all of its international commitments.
Overall, I believe that this approach strikes an appropriate balance. It respects the UK constitution, ensuring that the Government can negotiate in the best interests of the UK, while making sure that Parliament has the information that it needs to effectively scrutinise and lend its expertise to trade policy.